Wednesday, 27 October 2010

"If you think you can reason with him, then you're as mad as he is!" : The Abominable Dr Phibes

Not quite the very first, Tunnes und Schaal's mechanical sousaphone and accordion duo are in fact anticipated by two sevenths of the house band in Robert Fuest's (1971) cult b-grade horror, The Abominable Dr Phibes. The film opens with Phibes (played by Vincent Price, mouth tightly shut throughout) rising out of the ground while playing Mendelssohn's "War March of the Priests" (from his incidental music to Racine's Athalie) on a vast hammond organ, before he gives the floor over to Dr Phibes' Clockwork Wizards - a jerky black-tie septet with Frank Spencer heads playing composer Basil Kirchin's own funked version of Mendelssohn's march.

Dotted throughout the film, Kirchin has arranged a number of lounge classics for the mechanoid virtuousi, including 'A Hundred Years From Today', 'All I Do Is Dream Of You', and 'One For My Baby (One Just For The Road)'. Kirchin, the man who once complained of being a "prisoner of rhythm" as a former big band drummer, wrote a number of film soundtracks around this time in order to finance his more experimental work extracting "little boulders of sound" from slowed down tapes of bird song. The first fruits of which were released the same year as Dr Phibes, under the title, World Within Worlds.

Phibes is not a medical doctor but, to quote Tom Baker, "a doctor of many things", principally music and theology. Despite losing his voice and his face in a car crash, Phibes has used his "knowledge of music and acoustics to recreate my voice" by plugging a jack lead from his throat to a gold-plated gramophone. Embittered by the death of his wife, he sets out to murder the eight doctors (and one nurse) who failed to save her lie in the operating theatre, choosing his modus operandi according to a series of ancient Hebraic curses. The deaths themselves (a golden unicorn catapulted through the heart, a plague of locusts passed through a tube in the ceiling of a hospital bed, &c.), always perversely elaborate and highly aestheticised, lie somewhere between Bond villain high camp and the baroque sadism of Dario Argento.

Thematically, the film is also enormously ambiguous. Ostensibly, a battle between archaic mythology (the theologist Phibes and his ancient plagues) and scientific reason (the doctors he hunts), there remains between them the mediation of the almost Clouseau-esque police inspectors. Besides which, the ending, without wishing to spoil it for you, can only really be called a kind of dead heat, with the mystic left satisfied that he had succeeded in his plan and the forces of reason left mystified, if, somehow, equally convinced that they had won the day. It is hard to tell, throughout the film, quite where one's sympathies are supposed to lie. Phibes claims the support of God ("Don't cry upon God, Dr Vesalius. He is on my side! He led me, showed me the way in my quest for vengeance."). The name Vesalius (the chief surgeon - played by Joseph Cotten) is taken from the sixteenth century Dutch anatomist, once thought to have been persecuted by the inquisition for performing an autopsy on a man whose heart was found to be still beating.

As a gothic murderous musician whose only wish is that the respective hearts of his wife and himself may once more beat "in single time", it is perhaps unsurprising that Phibes has proved an inspiration to generations of metal bands from The Misfits to the Black Dahlia Murders and Angel Witch. Featuring a frankly awesome cast (Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Terry Thomas and Lindsay Anderson regular, Peter Jeffrey), glorious art deco sets (art director, Bernard Reeves had previously worked on Hampstead cine-poem, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize) and a garishly rich Mario Bava-esque colour scheme, the film has been called "one of the '70s juiciest entries into the horror genre."